Hong Kong Herbarium

Botanical Nomenclature:

How is a New Plant Species Named?

Joseph K. L. Yip, Hong Kong Herbarium

Ever since Linnaeus, botanists commonly form new scientific names by employing prominent morphological features of a plant species. The specific epithet of Kandelia obovata, for instance, indicates that the leaves of the species are obovate in shape. Plants could also be named after its discoverers and collectors (for example, Ailanthus fordii was first discovered by Charles Ford) as well as those contributed to botanical studies (Bauhinia × blakeana was named after the former Governor Sir Henry and Lady Blake for their contributions and support to the Hong Kong Botanical Garden, whereas Arundinaria shiuyingiana was named in honour of Prof. Shiu-ying Hu for her contribution to the study of Hong Kong flora.).


秋茄 Kandelia obovata 

洋紫荊 Bauhinia × blakeana

Moreover, botanists also name species after the place of its first discovery or the then known range of its distribution. For instance, Pavetta hongkongensis (the specific epithet means from Hong Kong) was first discovered in Hong Kong, although it was later known from Hainan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and the Philippines. Celtis sinensis (Chinese Hackberry), a native plant of China with a natural distribution within the country, the specific epithet is derived from the word “sino”, meaning from China. Although, with new discoveries in their distribution, such species may be no longer considered endemic to the geographical areas where they were first discovered, those names with the specific epithet referring to a location or region may have interesting stories behind their discoveries.

香港大沙葉 Pavetta hongkongensis

朴樹 Celtis sinensis

Hong Kong has a very long history of botanical studies. New species have been constantly discovered in Hong Kong for the last 150 years. This not only indicates the rich plant diversity in Hong Kong, but also relies on the continued efforts of researchers in botanical exploration. Amongst the new species discovered in Hong Kong, besides those named after their characteristics or persons, there are a total of 14 species which are named after Hong Kong, such as Camellia hongkongensisPiper hongkongense and Pavetta hongkongensis. The specific epithet of these species is either hongkongensis or hongkongense. Although both epithets were formerly used, the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature recommends only the former.

香港茶 Camellia hongkongensis

毛蒟 Piper hongkongense


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